[Viewpoint] Don’t blame the drunk monks

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[Viewpoint] Don’t blame the drunk monks

I took out my trekking shoes and climbed Mount Gwanak in southern Seoul last weekend. I stopped at the Yeonjuam Temple, perched precariously on the mountaintop, to take a rest. The view was breathtaking and the resonating echoes of temple bells soothed the ear. I sat there, relieved to discover the hermitage maintained an ethereal air, undisturbed as always by the worldly scandal involving two of the most famous disciples of the Jogye Order, the largest Buddhist sect in the country.

The scandal broke out after a monk expelled by the order went to the prosecution and press with a secretly taped video showing monks in a lakeside hotel playing heavy-stakes poker while drinking and smoking. The whistle blowing was motivated by an internal power struggle in the executive echelon of the Jogye Order between the current head, the Venerable Jaseung, and his old rival Venerable Myeongjin, former head monk of Bongeun Temple in a posh district of southern Seoul.

Their history goes back more than a decade to Yeonjuam Temple, where the two monks lived as kin. Jaseung, then head monk of the temple, appointed Myeongjin as the head of his Zen center. In fact, the former considered the latter his savior. During a sweeping wave of reforms in 1994, Myeongjin, who spearheaded the campaign, pardoned Jaseung, who was on the list for expulsion. He also helped Jaseung’s mentor Venerable Jeongdae ascend to the chief executive position of the Jogye Order. Jeongdae, head of the Jogye Order, Jaseung, with his access to the finance of temples in the Mount Gwangak area and Myeongjin, reform movement leader formed the pinnacles of the sect’s power.

The fellowship of Jaseung and Myeongjin stretched beyond the religious realm as they were discovered entertaining themselves in an expensive drinking parlor served by hostesses in southern Seoul in 2001. The two got into a fight with a bar employee after finishing off bottles of whiskey. The bar owner, who was of the Buddhist faith, exposed the dark side of the so-called spiritual leaders. The two promised to repent. Several years later, they returned even more powerful.

But politics seeped into their relationship. After the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak, Jaseung became the chief executive of the Jogye Order and he later dismissed Myeongjin from the Bongeun Temple. Myeongjin claimed he was framed for criticizing the Lee administration and funding dissident groups. Myeongjin, who was an activist in the sect, had been vocal supporter of President Roh Moo-hyun. He became the head priest of Bongeun Temple, where Roh’s wife served.

Jaseung, on the other hand, toured temples with the president’s brother Lee Sang-deuk during Lee’s presidential campaign, according to Myeongjin. Jaseung rose quickly to power after the inauguration of the Lee government. He followed in the footsteps of his mentor Jeongdae, who confessed he became the chief executive overnight with the help of President Kim Dae-jung, Buddhist activist groups and politicians. He championed Kim by warning of a political vendetta if conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang gained power. His mentor was Venerable Euihyeon, who wielded great power thanks to the patronage of the military regime. This history must have taught the men more politics than piety.

The Jogye Order flourished in an otherwise modern society. Politicians flocked to temples trying to use the influence of the leadership to buy votes. The ambitious also exploited the chance to climb up the ladder in the religious sect. The order’s leadership was reshaped after a major shift in the political world. Myeongjin and Jaseung, who maintained a close relationship during the two liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, went their separate ways after conservative Lee Myung-bak won the presidency.

Myeongjin may not have directly ordered the taping of the gambling and its exposure, but apparently he knew of the footage. His aide, who claimed that Ahn Sang-soo, then chairman of the Grand National Party, ordered Myeongjin to be kicked out of the Bongeun Temple, is said to have been involved in the distribution of the video.

Who is to blame for this debacle? Politicians should feel accountable for exploiting Buddhism as a means to gaining power. But monks who discarded their faith for secular avarice and politics are mostly at fault. Telling monks to stick to their faith will likely be in vain. The Buddhist sect has long ignored the need for reform. In fact, reform was used as pretext to start a feud. The Buddha preached that even the fearless lion can be eaten up by insects in his body.

Buddhism eschews possessions. Monks call themselves beggars. Instead of waiting for repentance, the order should pursue structural reforms so that monks are distanced from the temptation of money.

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Oh Byung-sang
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